Life expectancy in the United States, once firmly in the middle of the pack compared to most of the other major developed nations in the world, is relatively low and declining, a nationally recognized gerontology expert told WesternU students, staff and guests Thursday, April 17, 2014.

Eileen Crimmins, PhD, AARP Chair in Gerontology at the University of Southern California’s Davis School of Gerontology, and director of the USC/UCLA Center on Biodemography and Population Health, was the keynote speaker at The Ray Symposium, an annual event jointly presented by the WesternU College of Pharmacy and the Interprofessional Education program.

Click here to view Crimmins’ PowerPoint presentation.

Crimmins, who recently served as co-chair of a committee for the National Academy of Sciences charged with addressing why life expectancy in the U.S. is falling so far behind that of other countries, narrated a power point presentation that opened with a map of the United States. The map showed how life expectancy actually declined in some areas between 1987 and 2007 – mostly in the South – and was followed by other slides showing the U.S. is at or near the bottom in most major mortality categories, relative to other wealthy nations.

"Except for the very old, life in the U.S. is shorter and lived in poorer health than in other countries," Crimmins said, hastening to add that the "other" countries are the 16 other wealthiest nations in the world, including the United Kingdom, France, Japan and Australia.

For decades, Americans have been less likely to survive to age 50 than people in other rich nations, for a variety of reasons Crimmins cited in data from 2007-10. The U.S.:

– Had the second-highest injury mortality rate (2008).

– Had the highest death rate from transport accidents. (2009)

– Has an extraordinarily high percentage of homicides involving firearms – 69 percent – compared to the 26 percent average in other countries. (2007)

– Has an obesity rate (34 percent) that is twice the average of the 16 other comparison countries. Consequently, obesity-related illnesses – including diabetes, stroke, heart disease, asthma, cancer, and arthritis – also are at a higher percentage in the U.S.

What’s more, infant mortality in the United States is 16th out of 17 wealthy nations, with a death rate of 6.7 infants per 1,000 live births. "The probability of children dying before age 5 is higher than the 16 other peer countries," Crimmins said.

Finally, drug overdose deaths in the U.S. have more than tripled since 1990, the HIV rate among 18-24-year-olds is the highest among the 17 peer nations, and the U.S. has the highest teen pregnancy rate. Crimmins said.

So, what’s going right stateside when it comes to mortality? People are better diagnosed and undergo earlier treatment for breast cancer, prostate cancer and colorectal cancer, Crimmins said, and broad public awareness and attention to high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol have enabled health care providers to get a better handle on them.

"This is where pharmacy comes in," she said. "This indicates our health care system is doing something right when it knows what to do."

Crimmins said she believes the solutions to American health and mortality issues lie less in the way or type of health care provided than in the health care policies and practices that are followed. Very old people are in better health than many others in the U.S. because there’s a strong focus on end-of-life care, when much more attention must be paid to preventive care and overall wellness, she said.

"We’re really at a place where we need to do a lot of work just to stay in place. What we need to work on is health expectancy," she concluded.

The symposium was held in Lecture Hall I of WesternU’s Health Education Center. About 300 people attended. Sponsors included Blue Shield of California, Ralphs supermarkets, and the Azizyants Family.